Five Tips for Making the Most of Summer Camps

It’s that time of year and I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately on how to make the most of your time at a summer rowing camp. This year will be my third one doing camps so below is a list of tips that I’ve pulled together from several other coaches I’ve worked with and my own observations from the camps I’ve done so far.

You must be an active participant

This means engaging with the coaches, engaging with the other athletes, and taking a lot of notes. All the camps I’ve been too give you a notebook on Day 1 for this exact reason, because we know there’s going to be a lot of information dispensed and you’re not going to remember it all. Don’t wait for coaches to say “you should write this down” either because in most cases, we won’t.

So what should you write down? Any and all questions you want to ask the coaches you’re working with, their responses, feedback you ask for/receive on your individual rowing technique, anything you learn about technique that you might not have known before, any new drills you pick up (and their purpose, how it’s done, what it targets, etc.), any new calls or phrases you learn, post-practice reflections, etc. The opportunities to take notes during camp are endless and it makes it super easy to answer the inevitable “so what you’d do at camp” question your parents will ask on the drive home.

Your experience is a direct reflection of your level of investment and engagement

Have you ever worked on a group project and had that one kid who said nothing, contributed nothing, and made trying to engage with them akin to pulling teeth … and then complained to the teacher after the fact that the other people in their group sucked, they wouldn’t let them do anything, and whatever grade they got isn’t fair? Don’t be that person.

It’s pretty obvious when someone wants to learn and ask questions but is just shy and unsure of how to engage with the coaches or other kids. That’s totally fine and easy to work through. It’s also obvious who’s there just because their parents have the money to spend and want their kid to do something over the summer, even though the kid couldn’t care less about becoming a better rower or coxswain. This one is a lot harder to manage for both the coaches and athletes because … if you don’t want to be there, there’s not gonna be much that convinces you to try and make the best of it.

To quote another coach, “don’t make us pull information or a conversation out of you – it gets exhausting fast and isn’t where we want to put our efforts”. I’ve never worked with a coach who didn’t care about the experience a kid was having. We all want you to have a good time and get something out of being there but the onus can’t be put entirely on the coaches to make that happen. We’ll facilitate it but you’ve gotta work with us and not just sulk in the background whenever the coaches are laying out the plan for the day or trying to create a dialogue. Take ownership of your time at camp and be involved in the process.

Have specific and realistic goals

“Lower my 2k”, “learn about technique”, and “steer straighter” are three of the most common “goals” I’ve seen kids come into camp with and none are specific enough or realistic for a camp that lasts 3-5 days. Coxswains especially, when you say “learn about technique” … what does that mean?? There are umpteen hundred different facets of technique that I can promise you will take longer than our 3-5 90 minute group sessions to go over.

Related: Coxswains and summer camp

The more specific you are about what you want to learn, the better we as coaches will be able to address those things during practice or in group/one-on-one conversations. If the starting point is “I want to become a better coxswain in three days”, it’s like … great! … but how? Break that down into 2-3 things based on stuff that you were working on or struggled with during the previous season. Last summer we had a guy who wanted to pick up some strategies on improving his communication skills because that was something he struggled with throughout the season after unexpectedly getting moved into the varsity eight (as a freshman coxing juniors/seniors). That was a great goal because not only could all the other coxswains contribute their own advice on what’s worked (or hasn’t worked) for them but he also had two opportunities per day for six days to test everyone’s suggestions and find out what worked for him.

We probably weren’t going to see the benefits of the work he was doing at the end of the week but that was never the point … the point was for him to soak up as much information as he could so he could take it home and continue employing and tweaking it throughout the year. He came in with one very specific goal and was able to collect tons of advice from the other coxswains and the coaches (I distinctly remember him asking us about the best/worst coxswains on our team and why they were such) that ultimately paved the way towards him becoming a better coxswain in the long run. That was unlikely to happen though if he’d come in with something more vague and generic.

Come with questions

This goes back to being an active participant. There’s always scheduled opportunities for you to talk with coaches individually and you should take full advantage of that by coming prepared with a list of 5-7 questions that you want to have answered throughout the week. Don’t make them all about recruiting either because nearly every camp has dedicated time where they’ll talk to the entire group about that specifically. This is a good opportunity though to learn more about that specific coach’s program if you’re interested in rowing there but don’t be that guy that goes up to the Cornell lightweight coach to ask about the Harvard lightweight program. Know your audience.

Ask them for advice based on their personal experiences too. Several of the coaches I’ve worked with at these camps have rowed for the national team, been to the Olympics or World Championships, won NCAA/IRA titles (as athletes and coaches), etc. so you should pick their brains and find out what’s worked for them that might also work for you. If you’ve been trying to hit a new PR for awhile but seem to have hit a plateau, ask how they overcame that if/when it happened to them (or their teammates). If your boat had trouble this past season forming a cohesive identity, ask them how they/their coxswains/coaches handled similar situations where there were a lot of strong personalities in the boat who always seemed to be at odds with one another. Trust me when I say rowing coaches have stories that would put your grandparents “back in my day” stories to shame so don’t be afraid to engage with them and ask questions that go beyond “this is my 2k, how recruitable am I”.

For coxswains, one question that should be on your list for every coach you interact with is what’s their best piece of advice for improving communication with your coach. I guarantee every coach will tell you something different based on the experiences they’ve had with their coxswains and everything they tell you will be gold. One question I remember being asked had to do with something I said relating to someone’s technique – the coxswain had honed in on a specific phrase I said and asked how she could incorporate that into her calls because that same issue was something someone in her boat had struggled with the previous season. We spent a couple minutes brainstorming more concise ways of saying the same thing, as well as going over what exactly I was getting at so she understood the background of the technical issue we were working on, how to identify and correct it (using the calls we came up with), and how to tweak those calls based on whether they were doing something like steady state or in a faster-paced environment like a race.

Make mistakes and don’t assume your way is the only way

One of my favorite things that I’ve heard another (coxswain) coach say is that you’re gonna get called out for mistakes at camp because you’re not getting called out for them at home. If you were, you wouldn’t be making them. That applies to your rowing technique, your practice management skills, etc.

Related: Making mistakes

You should go in with a very open mind and be prepared to do things differently than you’re used to doing them … especially if you’ve been doing them wrong. “Suspend all beliefs you have about coxing” was how one coach phrased it last year because if you’ve been taught how to cox by people who have never coxed, you’re in for an eye-opening few days.

If you’ve been to a summer rowing camp (either a week-long one or a longer program like dev or HP camp) in the past, what are your tips for making the most out of your time there?

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Question of the Day

I am a freshman in high school cox and I am friends with an 8th grade cox. She isn’t done growing but is worried that she will be over the weight limit (aka minimum) when she is so she is trying to lose weight. She claims to just want to eat healthier but she does not eat lunch, has mentioned cutting sodium and fat significantly, and is tracking her calories. I think she has an eating disorder, which I have had before and don’t want her to go through. What should I do? I want her to be safe. 😦

I touched on this in a similar question a few months ago (linked below) but I think you’ve gotta be careful about assuming someone has an eating disorder just because they’re changing their eating habits. I get what you’re saying and can see why you might be concerned, especially since she’s only in 8th grade, but I wouldn’t jump to the worst possible conclusion just yet.

Related: Hello! I’m a collegiate rower currently at a D3 school. Recently I’ve noticed that my team’s top coxswain has seemed to have lost a lot of weight in the past few months. By this, I mean she seems to have lost 10 to 15lbs, which is a lot considering she’s 5’4″ and wasn’t over the 110lb minimum by more than 7 or 8lbs last season. I don’t believe she eats very often but when I do see her eat she doesn’t seem to have an eating disorder. I’m not sure whether or not I should be concerned about her weight loss and if I should bring it up with someone?

If you’ve dealt with an eating disorder and can see her starting to fall into the same habits you did, point that out (without being accusatory). There’s nothing wrong with tracking what you’re eating or cutting back on unhealthy stuff but there’s always the risk of taking it too far, sometimes without even realizing it, and having someone else point out that they can see you doing the same things they did can be the wake up call that gets them to reassess their approach. Point is, I’d be much more responsive to someone that said “hey, I’ve dealt with disordered eating, it started off as just wanting to lose a few pounds but I got really caught up in counting calories, it spiraled out of control pretty fast, etc. and I’m concerned because I see you doing some of the same things I did, which I now realize was doing more harm than good…” than someone who said “you stopped eating lunch, you stopped eating salt, you must have an eating disorder”.

The response there will either be “I’m good” or “…hmm”, in which case you should drop it if it’s the former (I mean, keep an eye on it if you’re really that concerned but don’t hover or keep belaboring the point) or offer her some advice if it’s the latter. If you’ve since recovered or are recovering from your eating disorder, talk with her about what you’re doing now to be healthy and maintain a good diet. If talking with a nutritionist, one of your coaches, etc. helped you, recommend it to her as an option if she finds she wants or needs help.

Also point out that as a freshman (presumably novice) coxswain, no one gives a fuck what you weigh. It’s literally the least important thing when you’re just learning how to cox. None of you are competitive enough at that stage for your coxswain’s weight to make any sort of difference in your speed. As long as you’re under like, 135 max (there’s gotta be a line somewhere), you should be perfectly fine.

Look, you’re closer to this situation than I am so you have to use your best judgment based on whatever you’re seeing. There is no perfect, step-by-step way to handle stuff like this. If you’re afraid to confront her directly, maybe ask your coach if they can address coxswain weight in general to all the coxswains (that way she’s not being singled out) and dispel the myth that they must weigh 110lbs or 120lbs on the dot every day of their entire high school career or else they’ll never get boated ever. Maybe hearing that will alleviate some of her worries.

Five things to do as a novice coxswain

If you’re new to the sport of rowing and got tapped to be a coxswain, here’s a few things you should do to help make sure your first few weeks go smoothly.

Establish a relationship with your coach.

Don’t be intimidated by them. Communication and trust are intangible assets when it comes to the coach-coxswain relationship so establishing them early on in your career can only help you. Talk to them regularly before and after practice and find out things like how they like to run practice. Coaches will vary on how much involvement they have, as well as how much involvement they’ll want from you when you’re just starting out. It’s definitely their responsibility to tell you this stuff up front but some won’t or will forget so take the initiative and ask yourself.

Listen and learn.

Observe everything. Ask lots of questions – even if you think they’re stupid, you get a pass because you’re new. Engage. Seek out and accept feedback/critiques on a regular basis.

Related: Advice from a former novice

Use your time wisely

As a novice you’re not going to have a ton of responsibilities right off the bat so use any “down” time (i.e. when the rowers are erging or you’re riding in the launch) to talk to the other coxswains and learn about the boathouse (where stuff is), procedures (getting the boat in/out), equipment (which boats/cox boxes you use), team culture, etc. Don’t be a wallflower or you’ll fall behind fast.

Reflect.

There’s a lot you have to learn and be in command of so establishing what your personal goals are (why you’re doing this, what you want to get out of it, etc.) and prioritizing the skills you need to master ASAP (steering…) will give you a framework to go off of, which will give going to practice every day an added sense of purpose that you might not otherwise have right off the bat.

Find a mentor.

Ideally this would be a varsity coxswain but it can also be a coach, team captain, etc. Basically you want to find someone who can help you get up to speed, answer questions, and just be a resource when needed. We did this in high school and we do it here at MIT too. It’s great because you have single source of contact so you never have to worry about who to ask if you have a question. Here we try to pair the guys off with other guys in their major so that if questions arise about classes, professors, advisors, internships, jobs, etc. they’ll be able to ask someone who’s experienced it all while also being a full-time student athlete. Plus, it helps with retention if people feel like they’ve got a friend on their side from the beginning vs. feeling like they’re going at this on their own.

Keep in mind too that this doesn’t only apply to novices, it applies any time you join a new team, even if you’re an experienced coxswain. If you’re a week or two into your freshman year of college and haven’t done any of the above yet, make it a priority this week to, at the very least, have a conversation with your coach and find a peer mentor on the team if they’re not already assigned to you.

Question of the Day

Hi, I’m currently an sophomore high school girls coxswain and this question doesn’t really have to do with coxing or rowing, but I hope you can help me out. Both the junior and senior classes of my crew are very small, two people each. However, the sophomore class is quite big, around 15. Now that the spring season is starting only about 5 novices have joined so our coach, who was a rower back when the varsity team had 90 girls total, is mad at us and constantly pressing us to go out and recruit. Our school has about 600 people per grade so it shouldn’t seem too hard but I am not very good at talking to new people so I have a hard time going up to people to recruit. I am wondering if you have any tips on how to recruit and things to say to the person to get them interested in the sport.

Check out this post. It’s mainly geared towards recruiting coxswains to your team (and what not to do) but there’s some stuff in there that’s applicable to recruiting in general.

Instead of talking to individual people (which will never not be awkward) try reaching out to groups instead, like National Honor Society (pretty sure 3/4 of my team was in NHS), Model UN, Key Club, Student Council, etc. If your school has a marching band (particularly a competitive one), that’d be another good group to talk to. I think during my freshman and sophomore year at least half of us (which was like, 50ish people) were on the crew team too since it was a good way to stay in shape between when we finished in November and started again in July.

That’s obviously not a comprehensive list but it’s a good starting point if you think about the type of people that rowing typically attracts – driven, competitive, dedicated, etc. See if you can make a quick 5 minute pitch at the start of their next meeting and say that the team is looking for people who’d be interested in joining, this is when/where practice is, follow us on social media to get an idea for what the team is like, and if you have any questions talk to [the team captain(s), the seniors, or whoever else you designate]. You don’t have to give a ton of details right off the bat so just give them the pertinent information and then you can answer the more specific questions later. Another thing is to see if you can occupy a small part of the chalkboard in some of the classrooms. We did this my senior year and asked our AP/Honors teachers if they’d mind us writing something and leaving it there for a week or so and they were all pretty cool with it. I don’t remember what we wrote but it was probably something really simple (“WANNA ROW? 3PM. LIBRARY. SNACKS.”) written in a delightfully artsy design that only a bunch of 17 year old girls given colored chalk and free reign over the chalkboard could design.

Another great way to get new people is to talk to fall/winter athletes who aren’t doing a spring sport. We had a lot of swimmers, basketball players, volleyball players, cross-country runners, and soccer players on our team, in addition to several football players – wide receivers, running backs, safeties, and kickers specifically. These were always some of the best people on the team (physically and mentally) because they already had that competitive mindset that can be really hard to teach new athletes. If you’re trying to get walk-ons in the fall you can also have your coach talk to the coaches of the other fall teams and see if they can get a list of the kids that were cut that might have the potential (aka athletic ability) to excel at another sport. Just because they didn’t make the soccer team doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make a good rower!

Question of the Day

Hi I’ve been recently reading your blog really enjoyed your posts. I have a question to ask you. I am in a high school crew and last year was my novice year. I spent the whole fall season rowing and also did winter conditioning, but I hoped I could become a coxswain. About half way through spring my coach realized that we needed a coxswain, and since I was light and eager to cox he used me as coxswain about once a week and I was able to cox four 4+ races, but they were always B boats because I was only the “part-time” coxswain. In the summer I rowed. Then this fall, my first varsity season, all but one of our coxswains, a girl who had coxed the guys novice last year during the spring were gone, participating in other activities. The coaches decided to make me the head girls varsity coxswain and, we’ll call her Maddie, the head boys varsity coxswain. At first I struggled a lot because I had hardly any instruction, and I was basically a novice varsity coxswain. Many of the rowers became exasperated with me. They would talk bad about me in the boat and at the boat house, and they would frequently decide to tap or back seat cox. About two weeks into the season, Sarah, a coxswain who has been coxing for 5 years and just last spring took a lightweight men’s 4+ to Nationals and placed 2nd, returned after being begged by one of our coaches. Instantly my problem became worse and the rowers would compare me to Sarah and wouldn’t take me seriously. Sarah and Maddie became close friends and have been excluding me and telling the rowers I am the worst coxswain to ever exist; they don’t take me seriously and think of me as a rower. The problem has only gotten worse as I’ve improved because Maddie seems to feel threatened by me because we are both in the same grade. So, my question is: how can I gain the respect of my fellow coxswains and the rowers after rowing for a year? Thanks for reading my long question, and I really hope you can answer it and help me gain some respect.

Check out this post (and the links included at the bottom) as well as the “respect” tag. There’s plenty of stuff in both those links that’ll give you ideas for how to earn respect from the rowers.

As for the coxswains, you kinda just have to be the bigger person, ignore their bullshit, and find a way to communicate/work with them. Icing out another coxswain because you’re “threatened” by them or don’t like them or whatever is just petty and I get that you’re in high school so that’s like, the norm for that age but at some point you have to wake up and realize that doing that isn’t just hurting whoever’s on the receiving end of it, it’s hurting the entire team. You can say exactly that to them too (nicely but still firm enough to make your point) and to be honest, you probably should. Maybe part of the reason why they say this stuff about you is because they think they can get away with it because (they think) you won’t stand up for yourself or say anything back to them. I don’t think you need to engage them in any way but you shouldn’t let them walk all over you either.

If Sarah is a good coxswain, which it sounds like she is, then presumably you have stuff you can learn from her so try to get on her good side by asking her questions, talking to her about how she’s coxed the boats she’s had in the past, proposing hypotheticals like “how would you deal with XYZ if this was your boat…”, etc. Sometimes that’s the best/easiest way to deal with a difficult person … flatter them and make them feel like you getting to learn from them is the greatest experience ever. Don’t be over the top about it or come off super fake because then they’ll just think you’re being passive aggressive (which in turn will only ramp up their collective attitude problem) … just approach it like you would a normal conversation with any other person. Hopefully doing that will give you a chance to develop a better working relationship with her and let her see that you’re not the enemy just because you’re a new-ish coxswain who’s still learning the ropes.

The bitch in the boat

This is kind of an off-topic(ish) post so just bear with me here. This particular issue has come up a lot lately in conversation and emails so I wanted to touch on it here and get your thoughts.

I don’t know if any other (female) coxswains get annoyed with this but it’s really starting to rub me the wrong way when we’re told to be more bitchy when we’re coxing. I was told this in high school and college, my friends have been told this, girls I coach have been told this, and I’ve had numerous emails over the last few years from women of all ages who have been told this.

Related: I was told to be more “bitchy” in the boat, but I want to make sure I’m constructively assertive and not mean or unnecessarily aggressive. Do you have any suggestions for how to talk to my coaches about this or to get back into a higher boat, or tips for being “bitchy” in a helpful way?

Instead of saying “be more bitchy”, why not just say “be more authoritative, assertive, confident, self-assured, etc.” in relation to whatever specific part of her coxing you’re referring to? There’s a big difference between asserting yourself to get shit done and straight up being a bitch and I don’t think it’s right to conflate the two and make it seem like in order to accomplish something you have to be (or are) a bitch. 

There’s obviously plenty of instances where being called a bitch isn’t a bad thing and like most people I think it’s a total non-issue when used in that context but telling a 14, 15, 16 year old girl (who doesn’t know or understand the pop culture appropriation of the word) that she needs to be bitchier in order to do her job just sends her the wrong message about what it takes to be a leader … and that I’m not cool with.

Related: My coach says that there’s  “a feistier” side in me that my rowers may not know about me. I can see why, I seem a little timid at times, but on the water when I make calls, I guess my voice changes and I get really into it/competitive. She also told me I should work on being even more of a leader-esp. on the water. As in I could throw in some challenges like out of shoes rowing at the end of practice or something. How do I become an effective leader without coming across as a bitch, rude, etc. ?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first one to admit that there are times when we are being bitches and we are being bossy in the negative sense and that’s something that we deserve to get called out on. Outside of those occasions though, there are better and more empowering ways to communicate to teenage girls how to be more assertive and confident when they’re in leadership roles (like what comes with being a coxswain). 

The question that was in the post I linked to asked if I had any tips for “being bitchy in a helpful way”. I like the way that coxswain explained it too because she said she wants to “make sure I’m constructively assertive and not mean or unnecessarily aggressive”, which I think is the perfect way to describe what people mean when they call someone a bitch because they either want the former or think they’re being the latter. Here’s what I said in response to that and going forward, if somebody tells you to “be bitchier in the boat”, know that this is probably what they want you to do.

“If your rowers are speaking in a general sense, I tend to interpret that as them saying they want you to be more on top of them about the little details – aka hold them accountable for the changes they need to make, the rate/splits they’re supposed to be at, etc. I was just talking about this with our coxswains yesterday when we went over their coxswain evals and what I told them was that they need to know not just the standards and expectations that we (the coaches) have for each crew but they also need to know the standards and expectations that the rowers have for themselves and then aggressively hold them to that. That combined with knowing the appropriate technical calls to make (and when) and understanding the focus and purpose of each drill/workout so you can cox them accordingly is how you present yourself as a “constructively assertive” coxswain.”

I know topics like this can be eye roll-inducing and easy to write off but I hope what I said makes sense and you see where I’m coming from. Also, because I know someone somewhere will think/say this, this has nothing to do with male coxswains and stuff like this never being said to them. I purposely avoided going down that road because I don’t think it’s relevant. Maybe it is but it’s not the point I’m trying to make.

Being a coxswain helps you develop so many great and important life skills, especially when it comes to leadership, so in the interest of encouraging more girls to step into similar roles let’s do our part as coaches and teammates by using the right language to communicate the traits it takes to accomplish that.

Question of the Day

I am a girl and I recently joined a new club team that has a very small group of girls and a very large group of guys. I started out coxing the novice guys so I know them pretty well and we work well together but recently I was switched to coxing the for girls. I feel like I work better with the guys and would like to go back to coxing for them. How do I approach my coach about this without sounding like I am complaining or being a team player?

I would first talk with the guys coach to see if there’s even a spot available for another coxswain on the team before you talk with your coach. (Even if you think there is, don’t assume anything until you’ve heard confirmation from the coach.) It’s like looking for a job – you shouldn’t quit your original job until you’ve landed another one otherwise you’re probably gonna get screwed. Same general principle applies here … at least in my opinion. You don’t have to go into all the details but I’d say something along the lines of you enjoyed being on the guys team, felt you worked well with him (the coach) and the rowers, and wanted to know if you were to switch back to the men’s team in the spring season (not mid-season, because that’s a shitty thing to do and not indicative of a “team player”), would there be a spot open for you and would you be able to compete right away for whatever boat it is you want. I’d let them know that you haven’t talked to your coach about this yet either but plan to do so within the next few days, just so they don’t end up saying something to them that puts you in an awkward position by giving your coach the impression that you’re going behind his/your team’s back.

If the men’s coach says there’d be a spot for you then the next step is talking with your coach. I would ask to meet with them one-on-one before or after practice and just lay out that when you started with the club you coxed with the men’s team and really enjoyed it because of XYZ. Explain to them your reasons for wanting to switch back to coxing them and try to avoid throwing anyone on your current team under the bus or saying something that implies you just like the other people better. Doing that is just going to come off wrong and won’t do you any favors. You don’t want to burn any bridges in the process of switching teams so you have to be as professional as possible about it and frame everything so that your reasons are about how/why you’ll thrive and have the kind of success you want with the other team and not about just liking a certain group of people more than another.

If the men’s coach says there isn’t a spot for you, accept that and figure out a way to work with your current teammates. Try talking with some of the varsity coxswains to see if they have any advice or if there’s something more serious going on, talk about it with your coach and ask them what advice they have for developing a better working relationship with the girls in your boat. Figuring out how to work well with people that you don’t necessarily get along or see eye-to-eye with is a solid life skill and this is a good opportunity to figure out some strategies for how to do that. (I always felt it came in handy in high school and college when working on group projects since group projects, you know, suck…)

I’ve always been of the opinion that a coach can’t tell you that you’re not allowed to switch teams – I just don’t think it’s within their power to do that – so talking with them is more of a courtesy thing to let them know what’s going on more than anything else. I do think they have the right to be a little annoyed though but that shouldn’t really stop you from doing what you think is best for you/your rowing career. Like I said,  you don’t want to burn any bridges but I also think you need to stick to your guns in situations like this. Coaches have a tendency to guilt trip people into staying on their current team and I personally don’t think that’s fair, for coxswains in particular since how well we work with the people in our boat can literally be the make-or-break factor in determining how well that crew does. Whatever you decide to do, be mature about how you approach things and you should be fine.